I feel her presence hesitating near me, her body still, waiting to see if I’m still sleeping.
I keep my eyes closed.
A surreptitious Beatriz is a dangerous one, and the feeling that she’s up to something has plagued me since the night she insisted we attend the party in Vedado.
The sound of footsteps, muffled by the carpet now, continue and then stop. I open one eye slowly.
Beatriz stands with her back to me, leaning over the wooden desk. Our father prefers to work privately in his study, reserving it as his inner sanctum, but he also keeps a desk here in the opulent library where he entertains guests and business associates as the mood suits him. As far as rooms go, you can’t get much more impressive than thousands of antique books collected by centuries of Perez ancestors.
The sound of drawers opening and closing, knobs rattling, fills the room.
My breath hitches. Beatriz turns.
My eyes slam closed.
“There’s no use, you know. I’ve slept in the same bedroom as you before. You snore when you’re truly asleep,” Beatriz calls out from across the room.
That’s the trouble with sisters; they know you far too well.
I open my eyes, rising from the chair, picking up the copy of Montesquieu that tumbled to the floor when I fell asleep.
“Should I be concerned by the fact that you’re skulking around Father’s desk?” I ask.
Knowing Beatriz as I do, her actions could be the result of a number of things, but it’s a not-so-hidden family secret that my father often keeps cash in his desk. Not a lot, of course, but—
Beatriz walks over to me, her gaze drifting to the book perched in my hand.
“Montesquieu? How egalitarian of you.” A twinkle gleams in her eyes.
I ignore the teasing note in her voice, the curiosity contained there.
“What are you doing going through his desk?” I repeat.
This time it’s Beatriz’s turn to look abashed.
“Have you heard from Alejandro?” I ask.
Of all of us, Beatriz and Alejandro are the closest, perhaps by virtue of being twins. She’s certainly taken his rift with the family the hardest. Beatriz was born first, and their relationship has always reflected that. She sneaks out of the house at all hours, taking packages bundled up from the kitchen among other items. She claims it’s charity, of course, but as I said, sisters always know you far too well.
Beatriz glances at the closed door, fear flickering in her gaze. If our father is willing to disown his heir, then none of us are safe from his ire, even his favorite child.
“Alejandro is in Havana,” she admits, keeping her voice low. “He needs money.”
“Is that why you wanted to go to the party? To meet up with Alejandro?”
Her expression turns defiant. “He’s my brother. What would you have me do?”
“If Father finds out—”
“He’ll what? Disown me, too?”
“Fine. Let him. I can’t keep pretending things are normal when they’re not, that our family is whole when it is not. What has Alejandro done that was so wrong?”
“He attempted to assassinate the president,” I hiss. “Participated in it, at least.”
He might not have been one of the men who stormed the Presidential Palace itself, but he planned the failed attack just the same.
“He needs our help,” Beatriz argues.
“He needs to leave Cuba,” I counter. How long can Alejandro escape Batista’s notice? How long before he is killed?
The grandfather clock chimes, cutting off Beatriz’s response. I agreed to meet Pablo at a restaurant in the Chinese quarter of the city for lunch. If I leave now, hopefully I won’t be late. The unexpected nap took quite the chunk out of my day.
Montesquieu dangles from my hands. “I need to go. We can finish this later.”
Beatriz rolls her eyes. “Must we?” Her gaze drifts to Montesquieu and back to my face again. “Meeting Ana?”
We’ve become masters in the art of reading between the lines of each other’s conversations, the art of having our own intimate discussions without saying the words aloud cultivated by the need to circumvent our parents’ notice. She doesn’t believe for a second that I’m meeting Ana, and in that moment, a truce is born. She’ll look the other way while I head off to my assignation, and I won’t say anything about her helping our brother—not that I would have anyway. In our younger years, we likely would have sealed our pact with a secret handshake or something similar. Now all it takes is a nod and a few parting words before I’m on my way out of the house—
Only to be stopped by Maria. The curse of having three sisters.
It takes every excuse I can think of to keep Maria from tagging along with me as I walk down the front stairs, the letter I’ve written Pablo tucked inside my purse. She trails behind me like a shadow.
“Please, Elisa. I just finished my math lessons. We can go shopping. I need a new dress.”
I laugh. “I seriously doubt you need a new dress.”
Even though Maria is the most rambunctious of us all, our mother insists on dressing her as though she’s a little doll, each gown itchier and fuller, more and more elaborate than the one before it. The age difference between Maria and me is due in part to the cooling relations in our parents’ marriage and punctuated by the loss of the child our mother miscarried. While Isabel, Beatriz, and I have had one another, and occasionally, Alejandro, Maria’s age has set her apart, leaving her more firmly in our mother’s care.
Maria’s lower lip juts out.
I try a different tactic, guilt filling me. “I’m meeting Ana for lunch.” Liar. “What if we get ice cream when I come back?”
She hesitates. “Coconut?”
Her weakness for sweets is another not-so-well-hidden family secret.
“Whatever you want.”
I don’t blame her for wishing to accompany me; life in the Perez household has become incrementally more restrictive with each act of violence in Havana. Batista might attempt to convince the rest of the country that the unrest is contained to a few isolated incidents firmly under his control, but our mother isn’t fooled, nor is she willing to expose her daughters to anything deadly or unseemly.
More reason why today’s outing must be a secret.
I leave Maria playing the piano, our ice cream date secured, and make my way to Central Havana, already a few minutes late. Sneaking out is becoming a habit, one I’m surprisingly good at, and a skill I wished I’d discovered in my younger years. I can only imagine the adventures I would have had.
I walk through the enormous gate heralding the entrance to the Barrio Chino, stepping into an unfamiliar part of the city. Havana and her secrets. When we dine out my parents tend to favor places like La Zaragozana or the many French restaurants that have sprung up in recent years. I can’t recall if I’ve ever been to this part of the city—at least, not since I was a child.
Sugar’s heavy influence over our fates and fortunes is evident here, too—it was sugar that brought the Chinese workers to the island long ago. Some of the workers returned to China when their contracts had ended, but many stayed, finding their home in Havana and the countryside.
Looking around me, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that my family has played a role in an industry that has supported the economy for so long, and at the same time, taken so much from its people, bringing wealth and prosperity to the island on the backs of so many. Our lifeblood as a nation is also a source of shame. I like to believe my father is a fair man, that he treats his workers well, pays them justly for their efforts, but I am not so sheltered as to believe it has always been thus for those who work the fields. It was sugar that kept us under the yoke of the Spaniards, that brought slaves to our shores, meant workers languished under harsh conditions, gave the Americans a heavy interest and control over our fortunes.
The island gives and the island takes in one fell swoop.
This is the legacy my brother rebels against, the cause that drives him. Is it Pablo’s cause, too?
Once I’m through the gate, I’m surrounded by a mixture of Spanish and Chinese spoken around me, the signage in characters I can’t read. The scents in the air are familiar, yet not—the smell of roast pig is mixed with seasonings and spices I can’t identify, spilling from tiny restaurants and storefronts. Bodies are crammed more tightly together here, and I fight my way through the crowd, looking for—
Pablo leans against a building with a red awning, his gaze scanning the street, settling on me.
He’s dressed casually today, his long legs encased in buff-colored pants and a paper-thin linen shirt—a concession to the heat, I imagine. He pushes off from the wall and walks toward me, a smile on his face that has my heart pounding.
“I wondered if you would come,” he says once again as though this is becoming our standard greeting, acknowledging the uncertainty between us. He steps forward, pressing a kiss to my cheek.
It’s only been a day since we last saw each other, but I can’t deny the urgency in my limbs, the eagerness in my heart.
“I’m sorry I’m late. My sisters—” I don’t know how much to share with him about my family, this man about whom I know so little. It’s one thing to trust him with my heart and another entirely to trust him with my family. “It’s complicated,” I say, realizing my words offer little explanation.
Pablo nods. “I appreciate you meeting me here. I thought it would be better if we went somewhere you aren’t known, where you don’t have to worry about being seen.”
He’s right about that—everyone is busy going about their day; no one bothers to glance our way. There’s freedom in the anonymity this part of Havana affords us, which has me standing just a bit closer to him than I normally would. It makes it easier that Pablo understands the risks I’m taking, but at the same time, I can’t deny the thread of shame that fills me—surely he deserves better than a girl who fears going against her family’s wishes.